This week in our Q & A series, we welcome our friends from out Californy-way and SB Nation's UCLA Bruins blog, Bruins Nation. Make sure to check out all the good stuff they do. Tyler, who goes by the moniker of Patroclus, joins us to answer our questions. In this Q & A session, we talk about Jim Mora's job at UCLA, Myles Jack and Paul makes his prediction for the game! You can also find my answers to his questions here. For perspective from a Bruin, simply read below.
During the Q & A I refer to myself as GC (GobblerCountry) and Tyler as BN (Bruins Nation). You can also find my answers to his questions here. Enjoy, and GO HOKIES!
GC: First off, and I imagine I know the answer at least to some degree, but how happy are UCLA fans/alums with the job Jim Mora has done since his hiring? How do they feel about the future of the program with him at the helm?
BN: Along with many observers and members of the college football media, we were not fans of the process that led to Coach Mora's hiring 2 years ago, but he has continually done the right things on and off the field since coming to Westwood. Not every day and game has gone perfectly, but pretty much every Bruin I know is happy with the direction that Mora has the football program headed and the near-term future looks very good for us. With the returning talent on the team (and assuming Brett Hundley returns for his junior season), the team should be favorites or co-favorites for the conference title and in place to become nationally relevant for the first time in about 15 years next fall.
GC: Admittedly, living on the east coast, not many Hokie fans (including myself) have seen much of UCLA this year outside of the highlights. So generally speaking, how has the season gone for the Bruins? At face value, 9-3 and the shot at a 10-win year seems pretty good. Are UCLA fans happy with those prospects, or were there any missed opportunities along the way that really haunted them?
BN: Our base expectations for the team at Bruins Nation coming into the season were 9 regular season wins and a victory over USC in the crosstown rivalry game, so by that measure the season has gone pretty well. But there were significant missed opportunities in each of our 3 losses that kept the Bruins from repeating as Pac-12 South champions and playing for a possible BCS bowl spot. The defeats at Oregon and Stanford were closer games than the final score indicated, particularly the game in Eugene, where we were tied at halftime and down just 7 early in the 4th quarter before the bottom fell out. The defacto Pac-12 South title game against ASU was a tale of 2 halves - the worst half of football I have seen under Mora in the 1st, and a furious comeback attempt that nearly worked in the 2nd.
GC: Are you/UCLA fans generally happy about the bowl pairing (going to the Sun Bowl, facing the Hokies, etc.). UCLA has one of the better offenses in the country with Brett Hundley at the helm. He has been pretty efficient passing the ball, but also leads the team in rushing yardage as well. How has he managed to rack up so many yards on the ground? On broken plays or mostly designed runs?
BN: In the big picture, Bruins and fans/alumni of other Pac-12 schools are not happy with the quality of the conference's bowl tie-ins. That is not a knock against El Paso or the work of the Sun Bowl organizers, but of the reality that our bowl tie-ins are a level below those of ACC/Big10/SEC teams when it comes to matchups, payouts and visibility. Once the Sun Bowl appeared as our likely destination, many of us were hoping to play Miami due to some unresolved history with the Hurricanes. But putting that aside and given the conference's bowl options, we are fine with playing in the Sun Bowl and look forward to going up against the Hokies.
GC: UCLA has one of the better offenses in the country with Brett Hundley at the helm. He has been pretty efficient passing the ball, but also leads the team in rushing yardage as well. How has he managed to rack up so many yards on the ground? On broken plays or mostly designed runs?
BN: It is a mix of the two. Hundley certainly does get his share of designed runs, and the occasional option. But the real damage that he can do on the ground does come on broken plays, or at least plays where the rushers open up a lane and the defense have given him room to run. One problem with Brett and broken plays though is that he does not always recognize they are broken in time, or at least he waits too long trying to find a receiver and ends up getting sacked. The offensive line has improved over last season but is still a work in progress, with 2 and sometimes 3 (heavily recruited) true freshmen starting games this season along the all-conference/all-american Xavier Su'a-Filo.
GC: There is a lot of balance in the distribution of carries out of the backfield, including the second-leading scorer out of the backfield, linebacker/running back Myles Jack. Is that situation because no back is appreciably better than another or is it a three-headed monster by design?
BN: The spreading of carries has been a product of injuries more than anything else. UCLA entered the season with junior Jordon James as the lead running back, who performed very well until suffering a dreaded high ankle sprain in the conference opener against Utah. He tried coming back (too soon) a couple weeks later, but an aggravation of the injury kept him out until his start in the regular season finale against USC. In the 4 full/2 partial games he played, he has run for 525 yards and 5 td's, and I expect him to get the bulk of the carries among our RB's tomorrow.
Myles Jack's use in the backfield came about due to the ineffectiveness of our other RB's in James' absence; with Jordon back at full health, I expect Myles's usage on offense to be limited to a few plays in specific 3rd/4th and short situations, with Paul Perkins, Damien Thigpen and maybe Steven Manfro rotating in to spell Jordon.
GC: Defensively, the Bruins have been a little less sharp, but generally a decent unit, sitting inside the top half of all the standard defensive measurables except for rushing yards allowed. What kind of shape/form are they in headed into the bowl game, and do you think they're perhaps better than advertised given the offensive nature of the PAC-12?
BN: I do think the Bruin defense is better than where the numbers have them - they don't give up many big plays, but there is a tendency to allow teams to grind out long drives. Playing in the Pac-12 is part of that underestimation, but also the reality that the unit has a penalty problem (helping opponents sustain those long scoring drives), and that we have rarely put together a complete, strong 60-minute performance - outstanding partial-games against Arizona State, Nebraska, Oregon and Stanford were countered by lapses if not complete breakdowns earlier or later in those games, with the Huskers the only one of those teams we were able to pull out the W against. Really, our last game against USC might be the only time we have played at a consistently high level, which I suppose is a good way to head into a bowl game.
One concern will be the absence of Eric Kendricks, who is back home recovering from ankle surgery. Despite the well-deserved hype for fellow linebackers Anthony Barr and Myles Jack, a solid case can be made that Eric has been our defensive MVP over the last 2 years. He missed parts of the games at Oregon and Stanford - both teams successfully took advantage of his replacement, true freshman Issaco Savaiinaea, by running up the middle for large gains. At least this time, Issaco and the coaches have had time to prepare and practice with the 1st team D, but for a defense that isn't the strongest at stopping runs up the middle, something to keep an eye on during the game.
GC: If you're on the Bruins D, is there any one player(s) from the Hokies offense that bother or scare you?
BN: As you told us in the other side of this Q&A (which will be published this afternoon on BN), there is a very good football player lurking somewhere inside of Logan Thomas. Don't know if he will be able to put it together tomorrow, but Logan in 2011 form could be trouble for us.
GC: On the opposite side of the coin, who should the Hokies be concerned about stopping (and if the answer is Hundley, perhaps include a less obvious name as well)?
BN: Yes, Brett Hundley is the obvious name to throw out there on offense; while there is a pretty good collection of talented players throughout the Bruin skill positions, there aren't really any other guys that I see as real gamebreakers right now. I would keep an eye out on Devin Lucien though. Bruin fans have been waiting for him to break out the last two years, and in the final month of the regular season finally began putting his elite talent to work on the field. And look out for Ishmael Adams on special teams. He became our primary kick returner two games ago, and in those games against Arizona State and USC went straight into beast mode - 8 kickoff returns at nearly 40-yards each, and a 49-yard punt return.
GC: If you had to make a prediction, what would it be? Who wins, by how much and why?
BN: I am not that big on predictions, but I'll go with UCLA 27, Virginia Tech 17. Adams' kick returns put the Bruin offense in favorable field position throughout the game - and breaks one deep inside Virginia Tech territory if not for a TD - the UCLA offense will do well, but the Tech defense will limit that damage. The Bruin defense will extend at least one Hokie drive with a 3rd down encroachment or defensive holding penalty leading to a score.
Thanks again to Tyler for joining us for the Q & A. You can also find my answers to his questions here. For all the news and coverage from a Bruin perspective, make sure to check out Bruins Nation. For all the Hokie stuff you could ever want, don't move a muscle. YOU'RE ON IT here at Gobbler Country.